"Symbol” comes from the Greek word symbolein,literally meaning “to throw together,” or “to bring together.” Symbols united reality. In the case of our language about God, symbols are intended to bring together the divine and the human. Despite claims in popular culture, God and humankind are not identical: one is the cause, the other is an effect of that cause; the divine is wholly free from space-time, whereas we human beings exist in space-time. To communicate anything about divine reality, symbols are needed. And among these symbols are words, or language symbols, as well as gestures, art, and music. Symbols are needed for mind to communicate with mind.
All of our language about Jesus is symbolic, and needs to be properly interpreted. A mind must search for the meaning intended by another mind. To understand the meaning of word symbols requires mental effort. Most of us have learned that many people put insufficient effort into seeking to understand someone’s meaning. Often we think we understand the words of another, but we do not, or we “do not know as we ought to know,” using St. Paul’s phrase. The evangelists employed language symbols to communicate to ancient readers the truth and beauty of their experience of “life in Christ Jesus.” These writers felt so much joy and spiritual renewal through their union with God in Christ, that they wanted to share their joy, and did so by writing down their thoughts and circulating them. The evangelist John, a master in the use of language symbols, has Christ Jesus declare: “I have come that you may have Life—Life more abundantly.” Clearly that is the evangelist’s experience of what he has found through faith-union with Christ.
One must seek to understand word-symbols in light of the experiences of the one speaking or writing. As any adult knows, the word “love” has vastly different meanings, depending on the one using the word, on the occasion, on the intention of the one speaking. One way that the evangelist John sought to communicate his experience of Christ was by using the Jewish symbol of God as the good shepherd, as in the 23rd psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want….” The evangelist experienced himself being guided, tended, shepherded by God in and through his faith-response to Christ. In calling Jesus “the Good Shepherd,” the evangelist tells us that he experiences the love and providential care of God in and through the Resurrected Christ. “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you,” John writes, speaking for the Resurrected. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.” All such expressions written by the evangelist John testify to his experience of God through his loving faith-union with the Risen Christ.
And whom, we may ask, does God shepherd in Christ? A reasonable answer would be: everyone who allows God to rule and to guide him into true Life. Potentially, this includes every human being. But each of us has discovered in ourselves an ability to turn away, to rebel, or simply to ignore the silent, subtle promptings of God as he seeks to shepherd us. We are not likened to sheep because we are wise, prudent, and understanding, but because we “often go astray like sheep,” to use the language of Deutero-Isaiah. (Perhaps we can even at times be justly likened to mules, “who must be driven to pasture by blows.” Can you ever be like a mule?)
To call Christ “the good shepherd” is a way of saying that he is the rightful, just ruler over humankind—over and in all human beings potentially, and actually over those who submit to his gentle and wise rule. All who “do the will of my Father” belong to Christ. Ultimately, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, Christ is the head over all of humanity. He is not the head of one group only, or of some “elected” or “saved” individual beings, but over each and all of us, from the beginning of history to the end. That is why we call Christ “LORD.” He is the beginning and end of each one of us, and of all of us together. To you, to me, to everyone, the Risen One says: “You are mine. I have given my life for you, so that you may know true love, peace, and happiness.” Such is Jesus, “the good shepherd.”